Monday 5 December 2016

Books: Murder, and love, she wrote

Romance and crime fiction aren't as far removed from each other as you might think

Claire Coughlan

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Girl interrupted: Emily Blunt plays Rachel, the alcoholic narrator of Paula Hawkins' best-selling psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, soon to appear on the silver screen
Girl interrupted: Emily Blunt plays Rachel, the alcoholic narrator of Paula Hawkins' best-selling psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, soon to appear on the silver screen

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, was the number one best selling book in Ireland in 2015. The psychological suspense novel, which is about to appear in cinemas starring Emily Blunt as Rachel, a depressed alcoholic who sees more than she can remember on one of her daily commutes, was a smash hit debut for the former journalist. However, strictly speaking, this wasn't Hawkins' first foray into fiction, as she previously published four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Amy Silver.

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"The book's success has been quite overwhelming," she says. "As you mentioned, I had written four novels previously, none of which did particularly well (one of which did very badly!), so this past year has been extraordinary for me. I'm obviously a lot busier than I was, and I'm rather more financially secure, but in most ways my life is remarkably similar. I still live in the same house and spend my days in much the same way (sitting at a desk, writing), so I feel quite unchanged."

The Girl on the Train is arguably a novel about relationships and Hawkins agrees that the crime and romance genres are linked, particularly with the current trend for what author Marian Keyes has dubbed 'grip lit' - or psychological suspense fiction.

"A lot of crime novels, particularly those in domestic settings, could be seen as romances gone very badly wrong," says Hawkins. "The breakdown of relationships - not just between men and women, but also within families or among friends - fascinates me. I think this is where we often witness people at their most extreme."

In The Girl on the Train, the character of Rachel Watson is highly unreliable due to her alcoholism and subsequent blackouts. Conversely in romance fiction, generally the main character is often supposed to be 'likeable' and instantly relatable. Does Hawkins agree with that?

"I think there is probably more pressure on romance writers to make their characters likeable, but I don't actually believe that this is necessary in any genre," she says. "Rachel was interesting to write - sometimes she was painful, and frustrating, and sad, but she has a resilience which I admired.

"Likeability is not important to me, provided a character is well-drawn, compelling and believable. I think readers will be far more willing to accompany a well-written villain on their journey than they would a saintly character who is forgettable, two-dimensional or dull."

Anyone hoping for another Amy Silver novel from Hawkins might be disappointed as she's currently working on "a very dark, rather Gothic psychological thriller set in a fictional part of the north of England; it focuses on the relationship between sisters, on the experiences that have shaped them and on how their differing memories of those experiences have driven a wedge between them." Romance's loss is definitely crime fiction's gain.

Easons Book Buyer Stephen Boylan says that romance is as robust as ever, citing authors like Jojo Moyes and our own Cathy Kelly as examples of the most popular names.

"I think it's a genre that continues to evolve very much," he says. "I think there's definitely a cross-over in relation to the audience - we've found that the majority of our crime readers are women, so it follows that people would be picking up both!"

It makes sense then, for the same authors who write crime to also turn their hand to romance. Northern Irish-born author Claire McGowan writes gritty crime fiction, under her own name, the latest of which, A Savage Hunger, is out in March. McGowan has also begun writing sparkling rom-coms under the name Eva Woods, the first of which, The Thirty List, was published last year.

It features Rachel Kenny, a newly divorced, broke 30-year-old freelance artist who embarks on a bucket list to inject some fun back into her life, with disastrously hilarious results. McGowan is often very funny indeed in her writing, something that shines through the Eva Woods writing.

The second Eva Woods book, The Ex Factor, will be out this summer, and is about a group of newly single friends who make a pact to date each other's exes. Was McGowan ever afraid her own friends (or exes!) might take issue about the possibility of turning up in one of her books?

"I ran into some trouble as I accidentally gave a character's nasty husband the same name as the ex of one of my friends....it was an accident though," she says. "My friends definitely think they are in rom-coms, but never in my crime for some reason!"

McGowan says that she started writing The Thirty List as a 'secret project' without her agent's knowledge, but the story was clearly whispering in her ear to be told.

"With The Thirty List, I just had to tell the story," she says. "It was heavily based on my own life and was a story that was busting to get out, so I wrote it on the side.

"I really wanted to write about things my friends and I are going through in our early 30s.

"I draw on my life much more as Eva Woods (as I've never been caught up in any murders!) but people do often ask how much of me is in Paula [Maguire, the forensic psychologist from McGowan's crime series] ...

"Maybe because we're the same sort of age and backgrounds - we're quite different though."

McGowan says she finds the process of writing in both genres pretty much the same, but with romance there is more emphasis on characters.

"The end of a romance novel needs to be uplifting, but with crime you can leave some things unresolved or even a bit bleak. It totally depends on the book which one I prefer to write, some are easier than others.

"It's really important to leave the reader feeling satisfied, but I don't want to give every character an obvious happy ending where they are all paired off, Shakespeare-style, so I try to do something a little unexpected.

"As I'm writing a crime series, I want each book to end on something of a cliffhanger, so no happy endings there - yet.

And surely happy endings are essential to romance fiction?

"You have to have happy endings in romance, but they need to not be too predictable, which is quite a challenge."

In the Paula Maguire novels, which are girtty and pacy, with the spectre of the Troubles constantly lurking in the background, romance is at a premium.

Would McGowan call herself a romantic at heart?

"I think I am a cynical-ish person with a mushy core," she says.

"So the more traditional 'romantic' gestures don't do much for me, but I will always cry at soppy films and quirkier love stories."

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